Nikki Williams said getting out of Portland was the best thing she could have done.
Williams relocated to Mesquite, Texas earlier this year after growing up in Northeast Portland and raising her daughter there. She was the subject of a 2002 documentary, Northeast Passage, about the push to gentrify her neighborhood. Filmmakers Cornelius Swart and Spencer Wolf just successfully completed a crowdfunding campaign for a followup movie, Priced Out, focusing on the aftermath in Williams’ life and in the surrounding community.
At the end of the first film, Williams is shown on screen saying, “As far as gentrification, let it come. Let it come.” The movie chronicles her efforts to rid her neighborhood of drugs and crime, and depcts her calling police on her neighbors and speaking against the construction of an affordable housing project she felt would bring in more crime. At the time, Williams, who lived in a home built by Habitat for Humanity, felt if more neighbors were homeowners, they would feel more invested in the community, take better care of their properties and work together to keep the neighborhood safe.
“Unfortunately, I think people did take my message from the first documentary and twist my words,” William said. “I never said, ‘Kick out all the Black folks, get rid of all the poor people.' I said make this a liveable community, period.”
Williams said since participating in the filming of the first movie, she’s continued her education and learned more about the social and historic factors that contribute to the makeup of neighborhoods.
“What North Portland was allowed to become should have never happened in the first place. It was allowed to become the hood, it was allowed to become a slum,” Williams said. Reinvesting in the neighborhood was not, in and of itself, a bad thing, she added, but officials and developers didn’t take an inclusive approach. “What shouldn’t have happened was the total exclusion of people of color and poor people.”
In the trailer for Priced Out, she describes her discomfort walking down Mississippi Avenue. It’s not just that the street’s businesses and patrons are now overwhelmingly white, she said, but that they seem uncomfortable with people of color, parting the sidewalk as she passes.
“Portland has not felt like home to me, I can honestly say since probably the early to mid 90s,” Williams told The Skanner. “In the last two to 10 years, it’s really felt foreign and alien to me.”
In Texas, she’s closer to family and has discovered a hub of Black people who used to live in Portland but have returned to Texas or other parts of the south – which makes the area feel like Portland used to feel to her. A longtime nonprofit worker, she’s currently caring for her grandson and working to start a culturally specific group for children who are part of the foster care system and the juvenile justice system.
She contacted Swart about a followup to the original movie because of the increased spotlight on racial politics in Oregon in particular, and because she sees what’s happening in Portland as indicative of a nationwide trend, with housing prices rising in major cities nationwide.
Swart told The Skanner he started working on the documentary in 1997, while living in Eugene. Spencer Wolf, a former classmate of Swart's from New York University, was volunteering at the Sabin Community Development Corporation and became a firsthand witness to changes underway in Northeast Portland.
“We both from the East Coast, and we both know how this stuff goes down,” Swart told The Skanner. “There’s just a tradition of neighborhoods turning over.” Cities like New York City and San Francisco have been dealing with a limited supply and high demand for housing for a long time, but other large cities are starting to see similar changes, with poor communities and communities of color being most dramatically affected by housing shortages, he said.
Swart and Wolf spent a year researching the neighborhood’s issues before making contact with Williams, who they decided to use as the anchor to tell the story.
Williams told The Skanner the relative size of communities of color in the Pacific Northwest is one of the reasons gentrification has cut so deeply.
“I think the reason gentrification in Portland hurt so bad is the Black community is just teeny tiny,” Williams said. “Here, I see so many people of color, brown-skinned. I don’t just mean Black, I mean no-White or non-obviously White people.”
“Twenty years ago or so when the documentary was made, I was still hopeful. This isn’t always about race, but about income level,” Williams said. “But I can’t sit here and pretend race is not part of it. Historically, we do things based on, ‘This is going to benefit White people.’”
Part of her is still hopeful that once more people are aware of the effects of policies that enable gentrification and displacement, they will work to put a stop to it. Another part feels there’s too much money to be made from gentrification, and too many powerful people who will benefit.
“I still stand behind my stance that a community has to be healthy in order to thrive,” Williams said. “Portland and other cities need to have an honest discussion about what ‘healthy’ means. For me, healthy does not mean exclusive.”